The life of the classical singer is complex. Singers are required to make significant technical and musical strides forward during their extended development process, as well as artistic ones. Of the three, the artistic strides are by far the most often overlooked, especially the singers themselves. But they are not overlooked by auditioners, management and directors. Lack of an artistic finish is used to winnow otherwise exceptional singers from contention for gigs, roles and long-term contracts.
How do you work on your artistic development? It is an individualized process, so there is no generic answer that fits every single singer. However, below there are some general guidelines that can help you discover your own, unique process.
Get out of denial
This is the first step – to realize that you actually need to work consciously to develop your artistry. Doing a few performance classes, workshops and concerts are not an adequate substitute. Pasting some generic gestures on top of every aria you sing does not count as artistry. You need a systematic way to explore your music, your characters and yourself on an emotional level that feels safe and is productive.
It is easy to believe that you are the exception to the rule and do not need to work on your artistry. But that is just an ego trap set, which lulls you into a sense of smug complacency. Just like everybody needs to develop and maintain a healthy vocal technique, everybody needs to work on their artistry – everybody! It was consistent, effective, imaginative work that made the great operatic and art song interpreters what they were. Maria Callas used to literally practice six or seven hours a day, day after day. It isn’t humanly possible that she was singing for that extended a time. Clearly, she was working on musicality and artistry the majority of the time, contemplating different possibilities and refining her approach. She became a legendary singing-actress because she developed her natural talent to a high level, not just by accident.
Finding the right tools
There are not a plethora of tools specifically for singers available to help you become a more expressive and effective artist. The best way is to research the resources available for actors and instrumentalists.
Formal acting training for singers is invaluable! By its nature, it is designed to break down inhibitions and make you more spontaneous, as well as more creative, open to possibility and able to express emotions. There are acting classes in most communities. Avail yourself of several classes and discover how they can help you refine your artistry. Don’t expect dramatic progress (forgive the pun!) right away, but instead a gradual peeling away of layers. If acting classes feel uncomfortable for you, that is actually quite normal. They aren’t supposed to be comfortable, but should give you the structure and guidance to challenge you to push past your usual boundaries. However, if you do feel any strong emotions or memories arising as a result, don’t hesitate to contact a qualified therapist for assistance.
Acting training is so critical for singers, because it teaches you how to develop a complete character and portray that character in a realistic physical and emotional way to an audience. Singing is emotionally based. Audiences can tell very easily if a singer truly feels the emotions about which s/he is singing. Great artistry reflects life, real situations and real feelings, allowing the audience to relive their own emotions in the mirror of the performance on-stage. To become an artist of the first order, you need your own way to express yourself with complete honesty in performance and transfer that honesty to your body and voice. Formal acting training offers a number of wonderful, time-tested tools to do just that.
It is also extremely helpful for singers to delve into the extensive musical training that instrumentalists undergo. It is the combination of music and language that make up the singer’s medium. The musical side can never be ignored. Vocal coaching is simply not enough. Don’t settle for being told what you need to do – learn in depth about your options and decide for yourself on the basis of knowledge and experience. Listen avidly to all types of instrumental music. It is crucial and exactly what my students tell me they don’t do. Listen, listen, listen! Become as sensitive as possible to music. Hear how much phrasing, emphasis and dynamics can enhance musicality and affect your emotions. These are the tools with which you want to become intimately familiar in order to be a true singing-artist. Immerse yourself in music of the various musical eras, so you can understand their norms and appreciate their nuances. Research other ways that instrumentalists develop their own musicianship and try those, too. The better a musician you are, the more you will develop as an artist.
Of course, you also want to listen to the great singers as much as possible. They are your ultimate role models, your shining examples of what is possible. But don’t just listen and imitate. Listen critically and break down what they are doing musically with phrasing, diction, emphasis, etc. Figure out what makes one singer different from another artistically. Which would you rather emulate? Try applying these musical ideas to your music and see what you think. Analyzing these subtleties requires time and attention, but will give you much greater understanding of how detailed you need to be when developing your artistry.
An extremely important part of artistic development is having free time to think. But in our world of constant interruptions, 24-hour news and multi-tasking, it is easy to keep so busy we don’t have the time we need to be creative.
Creativity doesn’t sandwich itself neatly between appointments or phone calls. We have to court the Muse gently in a place without external distractions… and then wait patiently for inspiration. That requires dedicated quiet time to think inventively about our music, the meaning behind poetry or prose, characters, motivations, life experiences and, indeed, our own emotional connection to the music, text and dramatic intent. Take on the challenge of being a truly creative artist by bringing to life the same type of interesting, complex, three-dimensional characters in all of your music.
By being quiet and waiting for inspiration, you will join an extremely illustrious group. The great classical composers lived in quieter world, listened to the inspirations inside their heads and wrote them down, crafting them through into the magnificent pieces of art that still live today. Perhaps J. S. Bach with his multitude of children did not have a quiet home, but he only had to leave the noisy children with their mothers (lucky man!) and go to one of his churches to think and create. Genius flourishes in quietude with the right nourishment. Give your own inspiration a chance by including enough creative solitude in your life. That is the only way to develop into a true artist.
A major mistake many singers make in trying to developing their artistry is lack of specificity. We as individuals are not generic stereotypes. You can tell who is walking down the street simply by their gait. So why would all of your characters walk exactly the same way… and, coincidentally, exactly the same way you normally walk? They wouldn’t, of course. Take the time to develop specific gestures, postures and other body language for characters, even in art song. This is exactly what you learn in formal acting classes – how to flesh out a complete, realistic, differentiated character with a life history, experiences good and bad and then to express that character physically.
Learn how to be specific with your text as well. Words have great power and words carefully chosen for librettos and poems are well-chosen and meaningful. Take advantage of everything the words can tell you about the character and add in your own subtext based on your creative musings and inspirations. This subtext can change according to a number of factors and it is in fact one of the highest artistic achievements to be able to develop multiple emotional approaches for the same operatic role – truly allowing the character to live and breathe like a real person.
Think outside of the box
The previous ways are the more conventional approaches to training your artistry, but there are countless other possibilities you can find both in real life and by the miracle of the internet. Open your mind and see how creative you can be. Maybe listening to someone read the poem of a song you are singing in his or her native language would give you insight into the natural emphasis of the language or the emotional possibilities available to you. A character’s gesture, body language or attitude on a movie or TV program can become inspiration for a particular operatic character. Someone you know can give you ideas for a character’s motivation. Mixing the personal experiences and characteristics of family and friends can bring to life interesting and complex characters quite quickly – just make sure to change enough so that no one recognizes him or herself! Books and other researched writings offer descriptions of people, situations, historical realities and social history that can be enlightening and give you far more material for your imagination to work with when developing characters.
Personally, I find a great deal of inspiration listening to trained actors from the UK speaking, both as themselves and in character. I don’t mean just Shakespearian actors, though they can be a revelation, but regular actors, as well. The vocal training there for actors is unsurpassed and they are able to express such crystal-clear differences in meaning simply by changing vocal inflection ever so slightly that I am continually amazed, delighted and inspired as I listen. Many of the great composers tried to express spoken vocal inflection in their melodies. Having a better understanding of the enormous range of vocal inflections allows you to delve into discovering the various meanings these composers built into their music – a fascinating study.
The fine arts can also provide ideas. A Debussy song can be inspired by the mood of an impressionist painting – just move past the obvious and make very specific choices. A famous sculpture could offer the starting point of the physicality of a character. Go beyond the arts, as well. Having a very bad cold helps you understand a consumptive’s suffering. A nasty co-worker’s habits can inspire those of a villain. A crazy neighbor can force you to experience the visceral nature of extreme frustration. Getting stranded in a car in a snowstorm brings to life the realities of a Parisian garret. Your own life experiences can give you insight into the difficult choices operatic characters make. Inspiration is everywhere. Life itself is inspiration for the creative singer! Let your imagination run wild, learn and develop the appropriate tools and then translate life directly into your performances. Then you will be a truly artistic singer and the classical singing world will benefit as a result.
For more articles and information, visit my website, http://www.thebricelandstudio.com